On May 18, the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) announced it would take over primary responsibility for investigating all deaths in police custody in the state.
This followed the recommendation made by deputy chief magistrate Brian Hine when he delivered his findings on May 14 to the third coronial inquest into the 2004 death of Aboriginal man Mulrunji Doomadgee in the Palm Island watch house.
On November 19, 2004, Mulrunji was walking home when sergeant Chris Hurley, driving by in his police vehicle, arrested him on a drunk and disorderly charge.
He was taken to the Palm Island watch house where there was a struggle, resulting in a fall. The now-comatose Mulrunji was taken to a cell and left there. Forty minutes later, he was found dead from massive internal injuries.
It's the nature of the “complicated fall” that has prompted the three separate inquiries, in addition to the manslaughter trial where Hurley was found not guilty.
The original medical examination of Mulrunji’s body showed extensive injuries. He had four broken ribs, a ruptured portal vein and his liver was cleaved almost in two.
They said the injuries were from a “massive compressive force, most likely a protruding knee”.
Witness Roy Bramwell told the inquest that Hurley had beaten Mulrunji, the March 9 Courier-Mail reported: “I saw him kick him, kick him, punch him three to five times … I could see he was hitting him by the door. I looked up, and saw them in the reflection of a mirror. He had his knee on him, hitting him, moving his knee, forcing himself on him.
“Hurley stood up and was saying, ‘Do you want more? You want more?’. I told police he kicked him and all that, but he [Detective Darren Robinson] crushed it and put it in the trash. He then took me and made a second statement. They told me if I told anyone what I saw they would come after me.”
Hurley had initially denied that he even came in contact at all with Mulrunji during the fall. At his later trial, he admitted that he “must have” done so, but during all following inquiries, he has maintained that he didn’t cause Mulrunji's death.
Hine said in his ruling: “I find that Senior Sergeant Hurley then punched Mulrunji three times to the face before dragging him limp into the cells. Sergeant Leafe came out after the yelling by Hurley as he states that he did not hear any such thing.
“Consequently there was time for Hurley to punch Mulrunji as alleged by Mr Bramwell and to sink the knee in at the same time before he returned. There is no doubt that Mulrunji was a ‘dead weight’ at that stage.
“In view of the reasons stated I consider that I am unable to make a definite finding and I am of the opinion that an open finding would be more appropriate. If the two main witnesses of the incident, namely Bengaroo and Bramwell, had not continually changed their versions and fabricated evidence I [sic] would have been possible to make a proper judgment. …
“On the other hand, there is sufficient compromising material to deny the possibility of a positive finding that what occurred in the corridor of the police station was an accident.”
The trial of Hurley before an all-white jury in Townsville had serious problems. Other allegations of Hurley using excessive force against Aboriginal people — including an incident where he hit an Aboriginal woman with his car, breaking her leg — were ruled inadmissible.
The 2006 inquest found that at the Palm Island watch house there was no attempt to comply with the protocols recommended by the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
The result of years of campaigning by Aboriginal people, this commission made 139 recommendations.
That these recommendations have been ignored throughout Australia is tragically illustrated by the frequent reoccurrence of suspicious deaths of black people in prison or police custody.
Among the more high profile recent cases are Veronica Baxter, a transgender woman found hanged in the all-male Silverwater Remand Centre in NSW in 2009 after being charged with minor drug offences and Mr Ward, an elder who was literally cooked to death in an unventilated prison van operated by private security firm, GSL (since renamed G4S) in 2008 after he was arrested for a traffic offence.
Hine condemned the collusion by police to cover up the killing, but said: “I find that Hurley was concerned that if it was reported to the Palm Island Community that he had fallen on Mulrunji or assaulted him there would be severe repercussions.
“Sergeant Leafe’s telephone call to his wife is confirmation of his fear of retribution if word got out.”
This ruling means, in effect, that Hine thought it was reasonable for police to lie to cover-up a killing. However, the case has meant the CMC will now conduct all investigations of deaths in police custody, stopping police from investigating themselves and making it harder to cover up for one another.
The decision makes it possible for Mulrunji’s family to pursue a civil case against Hurley, asking for $900,000 in damages from Hurley and the Queensland government.
The open ruling by Hine means this is the only justice they can get. In February 2005, the Queensland government confidentially gave Hurley $102,955 in compensation for damages to his Palm Island house as a result of protests against Mulrunji’s death.
Murri leader Sam Watson is the Socialist Alliance Senate candidate for Queensland and leads the campaign for justice for Mulrunji, and for an end to all deaths in custody.
He has called for the resignation of Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson. He said Atkinson oversaw the collusion by police to hide evidence, and repeatedly defended the police responsible for the death before judgements had been made.
He told AAP on May 19: “He's presided over this entire sorry episode since 2004.
“It’s been found police standards have fallen dramatically, and yet Mr Atkinson sees nothing and does nothing — it's time for him to move on. Any family that suffers from a death in custody should expect a timely and sincere investigation of all the issues and the timely release of findings.”
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